Posts tagged spiders

Autumn Gifts from Mother Nature

DSCN1095Fall is definitely a beautiful time of year in the mid-south.  I love the webs of orb weavers, like the huge Black and  Yellow Argiope (garden spider) who tends to stay in the middle of her web.  Males build smaller webs around hers until they see a chance to mate. Then there is the araneus, a smaller orb weaver whose webs are often attached to telephone poles and wires, tree limbs and weeds. Unlike the Argiope, she tends to hide near the edge of her web until prey lands within her trap, then she goes in for the kill, wrapping them in her silk for later eating.  Both of these spiders  are mature females waiting for a mate and then for making their paper-bag brown egg casings, often attached to one of the tall, stiff weed stems where they have made their web all summer.

Mushrooms are just amazing in autumn.  The colors and varieties are enormous!  My daughter spotted some mid-sized yellow mushrooms with brown marks on to the other day.  I didn’t look them up or take a photo, but I remember what they looked like, and will definitely check my book!  last year, I spotted some beautiful mushrooms sprouting from the ssump of a rotting tree.  They would start out with a bulb at the top, and as they matured, they opened up, sporting a detached cap.  Their tan color made them blend in with the tree trunk, I did take photos of them. I had trouble finding an exact match in my book, but will try to do some up-dating on mushrooms soon and add the name into the article.

I love the variety of autumn asters.  The tiny white ones are often pulled up as weeds, but I let them grown, ungainly and tall until to burst into bloom in late September and bloom until frost.  Honey bees and butterflies find the late blooming asters to be one of their few sources of nectar this time of year, I wish people would be aware of how important honey bees are to crops!  Diseases and decreasing habitat have greatly reduced the number of honey bees in the Southern Appalachians, please nature lovers, leave the wild asters, both the small gangly white variety as well as the more attractive and larger purple asters so that the bees and butterflies that are still around in autumn will have food!

I cannot forget the beautiful red berries that appear on dogwood trees. They become aparent only as the leaves start to fall near the time of the first frost. Wild roses also sport red seed buds in fall. Both provide food for the creatures who stay for the winter in the Southern Appalachians,-anywhere from birds like the cardinal and gray squirrels.

Wild muscedine grapes seem to flow from the branches of trees at the edge of forest and yards where they can get plenty of sun. They are dark purple, and smaller than grapes that we grow, but were often used by early settlers for jellies, juice and jams. The leaves are dark green and fluted, just as a “tame” grape.  The grapes hang in bunches similar to tame graoes, as well.

Nature doesn’t leave us empty handed in the fall of the year, it just shows the products of summers growth and becomes food for the animals who stay with us during fall and winter.

I will end with a favorite poem that I learned in fifth grade. I appologize for not remembering the author.


A road like brown ribbon, a sky that is blue,

A forest of green with that sky peeping through,

Asters, deep purple, a grasshoppers call,

Today, it is summer, tomorrow, it’s fall.


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Lilith Watching


School was out for the summer at last. Families toured  the bird reserve.

Everyone seemed happy, except poor Lillith, neatly spinning her web on a high post that she hoped would be out of the view of visitors who may not like her. She was beautiful, a young Black and Yellow Argiope (some called her a garden spider). She was useful, she dined on insects that humans did not admire.

The sun was setting, she had caught five meals, and was ready to settle down for the night.

“Goodnight, Lillith” I whispered. ” I will check on you tomorrow.”

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Black Widow Spider

Black Widow Spider

As many of you know, I study spiders, insects, nature in general. I have written stories on spiders many times. Ironically, Black Widows “come to me” on my son’s grave and now, my mom’s grave as well. It has happened 4 times with my son and this is the first with my mom. I will look around and there will be no black widows on any of the other grave sites. Is it a message to me because they know that only I would recognize the Black Widows web and hunt for the spider? I will always “wait” to see if it is some sort of message from my loved ones. This one I found tonight hidden in my mom’s flower vase.

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An Unexpected Guest

An Unexpected Guest

An Unexpected Guest

It has been years since I had the privilege of observing a Black and Yellow Argiope Spider over the  summer.  There have been summers when I have found as many as four or five of these gorgeous spiders.  Then, there have been years when I failed to discover even one. This year, on the 4th of July, as my son was lighting fireworks in the road, I observed  a small argiope in an overgrown area.  I was cleaning morning glories vines from a small garden surrounding some mail boxes when I noticed the telltale zig-zag design on her small web.

During the most exciting years, I have started following them in June, when they are young. At this stage, legs included, they are about an inch long and “ write” large white zig-zag designs on their webs.  I have seen another spider approach the web of a small argiope, dash up, bite her and kill her.  Watching my little friend fall from her web,  was totally unexpected.  I couldn’t save her, but the other spider did not live to drain her of her fluids. I didn’t realize other spiders sought out argiopes as potential meals.

The distinctive zig-zag design made by the female Argiope, becomes less detailed as the spider molts and becomes larger.  The “writing” in the web design accounts for their common name, The Writing Spider. The spider is also know as a “garden spider” in some areas of the south.

As the season goes on, the spiders molt and grow, staying in relatively the same location. Most of the spiders (of any kind) that an observer will see are females, which are larger than the males.   Females of this species are quite large when fully grown, with a large, gray cephalothorax and an abdomen with beautiful black and yellow designs which account for their official name. Their legs are long with grey and brown markings.  Both males and females rest with the front four legs pointed forward and the back four legs pointing to the rear of the spider.

Males usually appear in late summer and weave a small web near the females web, in order to mate, and hopefully escape afterwards.  The female attaches a papery brown egg sack, to a nearby sturdy weed stem to which she has attached her web. It is rather tear-drop shaped and remains on the dead stem throughout the winter, hatching in mid spring.

I have observed my little argiope for several days now.  She has not changed locations.  With a vicious storm going on as I write, I will have to check on her in a little while. Even while I was trimming back the morning glory vines and installing a protective tomato cage nearby for the vines to grown around her web, she did not move from her center spot where she had “written”. I have read that the purpose of the “writing” is two-fold.  The spider wants to attract insects to her web, but warn larger creatures, such as birds, that her web is there, so they don’t fly into it.

Hopefully, I will get to observe this spider all summer and have an update to write on my observations in the fall!

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The Black and Yellow Argiope Spider

The Black and Yellow Argiope Spider

Black and Yellow Argiope
Also Known as “Garden Spider”

One day in early August several years ago, I found myself lamenting over how few praying mantises I had been able to observe that season. Then I noticed a beautiful Black and Yellow Argiope spider (Argiope Aurantia) sitting on her web, attached to a bush at the edge of my garden. I went to tell my kids and when we returned, we found another Argiope on her web nearby. Within the next few days, two more of these large colorful spiders appeared in our yard.

I am always looking for opportunities to study new creatures and these four “ladies” were just what the doctor ordered! In Western North Carolina, where I live, the Black and Yellow Argiope is a rather common sight. Since they are often found at the edge of the forest or fields, many people never see them. They are often referred to as “Garden Spiders” or “Writing Spiders”. Some years ago, when I had a larger garden, I often found one or two of these spiders residing near the edge of my garden by late summer. It was then that I started to study them. Once, I saw one that was identical to the Argiope I was familiar with, only it was solid black. I have never seen another one like it.

Many a legend has been formed in these mountains about these spiders, whose large webs contain a bright white zig-zag “writing” down the middle of the web. This, of course is how they obtained their common name of “writing spider”.

My fathers’ favorite legend about these spiders comes from the days when World War II was looming on the horizon. It was said, that at a local church, members began to speak of a “Writing Spider” who had made a web near the grave yard. Several people swore that the spider had written “WAR” in her web. My father and some of his friends went to see the web, but felt the church members were stretching the truth a bit. Still. it was an interesting story and attracted quite a bit of interest.

Scientists believe that the real reason for the “writing” in the center of the web is to warn off birds so they will not tear up the web as well as to attract insects to the dense white color of the design. The want the web to collect a meal for them before it is destroyed. The bright white zig-zag may also attract prey for the spider.

The adult female Black and White Argiope is around 3/4″ to 1″ in body length with her legs stretching out in an “x” like pattern to make her much larger. The males are seen left often and are much smaller. Their bodies are long and thin while the females are wide and heavy. At the end of summer males build small webs near a female in order to approach her and mate with her. As with all male spiders, they must be careful. Female spiders do not set out to kill and eat the male, as is often rumored, but if she is hungry and he is careless, he may end up as a meal. I have seen several anxious males with webs near a huge female.

The female Argiope sits in the middle of her web, near her “writing” as she awaits prey, often butterflies and bees. Her abdomen is marked with yellow and white designs on a black background. Her cephalothorax is light gray. The legs are brown near their connections with the cephalothorax and brown and black on the lower legs.

The spiders that I have observed have had a web that averaged 15″ to 18″ in width. They usually attach them to a strong ,tall weed, bush, or corn stalk. When an insect is caught in her web, she may wait until the prey becomes weakened from struggling before she goes in to inject venom into it and wrap it in her silky web. I have observed the spiders catching, wrapping and “eating” (actually sucking out the juices) from many different insects, among them were bees of all kinds, flies, butterflies and moths and cicadas.

For six weeks that year, my family enjoyed watching these beautiful spiders. Once, early in the season, I had seen another spider sneak up and bite a young argiope. I had heard spiders ate each other, but this episode was my first experience actually seeing it. It saddened me that I would not get to follow this spider through her life cycle.

We numbered the spiders and made a chart, keeping track of their daily activities. Spider Number 4 had her web among the irises. Spiders Number 2 and 3 were only about three or four feet apart and nearly directly behind each other. Spider Number 1 was near the mailbox and attached to a wild flower called a knapweed.

In late September, spiders 1, 2 and 3 disappeared. This is the way it goes. One day after mating, they make a large, brown tear drop-shaped egg case, attach it to the weed or bush their web is attached to, and simply wander off to die.
Often, I would noticed that this event of death and renewal had happened during a hard rain. Spider number 4 was in a more protected location and remained there several more weeks. My daughter had an Argiope remain under her houses’ eve until after the first frost one year!

One day, my father and I were walking in the garden and noticed that number 4 had a large cicada trapped in her web. She had retreated to the leaves of the plant her web was attached to, avoiding the huge insect as it struggled in her silky trap. The next morning, I saw her feeding on it. To hold this giant insect, her web must have been very strong, much like the black widow, known for the strength of her web.

As an amateur photographer, I enjoyed the chance to take many photos of these spiders during the summer and early fall. This was in the days before digital cameras were popular and I took the pictures with a complicated, yet very accurate camera that used film. I was fortunate to see Spider #4 intricately repair her beautiful orb web one sunny day. How such a “simple” creature could construct such a work of art will always amaze me.

Although I did not get to see the spiders make their egg sacks, I did find and collect two of them. I sewed them up in a safe place in a low bush, hoping to see the young spiders the next spring. Though I was not fortunate enough to see them hatch, I did observe a few Argiope spiders around the yard the next year. I have learned to look for different kinds of insects, such as preying mantises, spiders and butterflies to observe during their short lives. Each experience has taught me lessons about nature that I simply could not find in a book!

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